Vahe Gregorian

NFL’s blind spot may have inadvertently opened the public’s eyes to domestic violence

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at a news conference Friday in New York, saying the NFL wants to implement new personal conduct policies by the Super Bowl.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at a news conference Friday in New York, saying the NFL wants to implement new personal conduct policies by the Super Bowl. AP

After 10 days of silence amid chaos, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell emerged Friday from his bunker to address his league’s domestic-violence crisis.

Following what struck many as a hollow performance, a 45-minute news conference in New York that was short on substance and mechanical in style, it was hard to understand what actually inspired his appearance.

Maybe he accidentally reached for the NFL’s misplaced moral compass when he was trying to secure its wallet from jittery sponsors.

Perhaps he wanted to get it over with, because he knew about the ESPN “Outside The Lines” report coming later in the day that would further bring to light the possibility of a cover-up in the Ray Rice fiasco.

Or maybe it just took every bit of that time to try to formulate the vague plan he was touting.

Whatever compelled him, he carried forth with a wooden demeanor that surprisingly didn’t restrain him from nimbly spinning and ducking a deluge of questions related to Rice, the former NFL running back who has been waived by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the league for assaulting his then-fiancée Janay Rice.

Among Goodell’s pledges on Friday: formation of a new “personal conduct committee” that will evaluate and make recommendations regarding the league’s 7-year-old personal-conduct policy, a closer partnership with the NFL players union and the promise that “nothing is off the table,” including a reassessment of his own role as commissioner.

“I’m not satisfied with the way we handled (the Rice situation) from the get-go. … I made a mistake,” Goodell said. “I let myself down. I let everybody else down, and for that, I’m sorry.”

But elements of the absurd tarnished the heavily televised event.

There was the oddity of a TMZ reporter telling Goodell the organization had gotten the damning video of the Rice punch with one phone call after the NFL’s crack legal team supposedly couldn’t get it.

Then there was the outburst by a Howard Stern operative, who apparently created a ruckus just so he could be ejected and yell “don’t take me into an elevator” — an act that was more insensitive to the violence perpetrated against Janay Rice than it was a worthy jab at Goodell.

And, of course, there was the Twilight Zone monotone of Goodell, 55, who began by acknowledging that he’d gotten it wrong in many ways but sounded increasingly less sincere as he referred back to having already said he made mistakes as he faced other questions.

So fixated on that was Goodell that when asked why he should keep his job, which pays him as much as $44 million annually, he actually said, “Because I acknowledged my mistake Aug. 28.” He also said he believes he has the support of the league’s 32 owners and has no plans to resign.

For all the nonsense, though, something seismic may be happening in the fallout here … primed by the inadvertent contribution of the NFL, and not only because Goodell promised harsher punishment for “totally unacceptable” behavior — domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, misuse of firearms, and illegal use of alcohol and drugs.

Because its initial response to Rice was so warped — a paltry two-game suspension — the rumbling started with the release of the second Rice video. And it began to accelerate in the void of NFL leadership between then and now, especially as Adrian Peterson faces child-abuse charges for “whooping” his 4-year-old son with a “switch” and domestic-abuse allegations against others came to light.

If nature abhors a vacuum, so do human beings … who have way more ways to fill it up in the era of social media.

Between the media attention and outrage across the nation, including from heavyweight sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch and Procter & Gamble (which on Friday pulled out of a planned Breast Cancer Awareness event for October), the topic had been bubbling at a critical mass by the time Goodell finally spoke.

That dynamic made for a pivotal moment.

“I think this truly has been a tipping point in how the nation looks at domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Joan Schultz, executive director of the Willow Domestic Violence Center in Lawrence. “We’re starting to take it out of (being) the victim’s fault.

“And men are starting to stand up and say, ‘No,’ and that’s what I’ve always thought it was going to take: ‘No, this is not right. … We’re silent no more.’ ”

The White House even chimed in Friday, with a senior administration official calling the situation “really deeply troubling.”

The latest burst of consciousness raising, of course, stemmed from a matter of omission instead of commission by the NFL. But Schultz is less concerned with a specific NFL plan than she is with continuing dialogue and scrutiny of the broader issue.

“OK, do you want this man’s head?” she said. “Or do you want to really approach the subject, find a solution that is good for domestic violence, good for domestic violence survivors, good for the NFL, good for the players and good for America?

“Why should I believe that this guy’s intentions aren’t good?”

Like Schultz, Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says she has no reason to doubt that Goodell means to make good on his stated intention to “get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that.”

Though she is wary of the notion of an entity just writing checks in a crisis, Coble also is pleased that the NFL took tangible action late Thursday by announcing partnerships with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

After all, those programs remain overwhelmed with demands for services, so much so that in Missouri alone she said “we’re turning away tens of thousands” of victims despite the progress made.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Coble said. “I believe that this is the start of an improved response, which certainly is needed by the NFL. I was really pleased with (Goodell saying), ‘The NFL is a microcosm of society.’

“I think that’s an important point in moving forward, that just as the NFL has to get its house in order … this is an opportunity for all us to also see what we can do.

“It’s not just the NFL. It’s every community in Missouri. It’s every community in Kansas. It’s every place where someone is in need of help and support.”

As Coble considered the murder of Kasandra Perkins and subsequent suicide of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher in 2012, she noted a recent report that Missouri is seventh in the nation in domestic-violence homicides.

“There continue to be women who pay with their lives for the fact that we’re not doing enough. Kasandra Perkins paid with her life,” she said. “We need to honor them by doing better.”

It’s hard to know the depth and sincerity and staying power that will be behind the NFL’s plan. But tardy and ham-handed as it has been, the NFL nonetheless has cast crucial light on the topic of domestic violence.

And the real topic isn’t Goodell at all but using the moment to keep this an urgent, intolerable national matter.

“I don’t care if some people thought that Roger Goodell was wooden,” Coble said. “That’s not the point, and we dare not diminish the reality of what the point is.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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